How did the idea of nationalism lead to nation building in Europe in the 19th Century?

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The modern idea of the "nation state" arose throughout Europe in the nineteenth century. While this occurred in part as a result of a growing sense of a shared "national identity," the primary drivers were political and economic. Indeed, the solidification of nation states often occurred despite vast cultural difference.

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The modern idea of the "nation state" arose throughout Europe in the nineteenth century. While this occurred in part as a result of a growing sense of a shared "national identity," the primary drivers were political and economic. Indeed, the solidification of nation states often occurred despite vast cultural difference.

Two examples stand out: Germany and Italy, nations that did not exist before the nineteenth century. Yes, there had been a sense of a "German identity" for decades, but it was dispersed throughout the erstwhile Holy Roman Empire. Germany, like most European countries, was an imperial power. The creation of that German nation state was expeditious in advancing Germany's imperial and colonial goals. It was also created in response to the increasing number of military alliances that formed in Europe in the nineteenth century.

Italy was a collection of disparate provinces and kingdoms. Its unification was a result of the necessity of forming military alliances during the Franco-Prussian War.

Interestingly, across the Atlantic in the United States, President Lincoln, through his use of military force, once and for all settled the question of federal primacy in the Civil War. Thereby, he solidified the endurance of the American nation state, despite the "ununified" cultures of the north and south.

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Nationalism was the ideological driving force behind nation-building in the nineteenth century. A shared sense of identity with other "Germans" and "Italians," for example, helped to build popular support for the unification of these countries--Italy, as one European leader said, was nothing more than a "geographic expression" before the 1860s. (I focus here on these two nations because nation-building there served as an example for other nations). As early as the 1810s, nationalistic organizations like Giuseppe Mazzini's "Young Italy" emerged, creating momentum for the formation of nation-states. As historian Benedict Anderson has shown, the spread of print media also facilitated nationalism by helping to create a shared culture, or an "imagined community" as Anderson called it. The actual mechanics of nation-building was carried out by statesmen such as Count Cavour in Italy and Otto von Bismarck in Germany, and the liberal ideals that often accompanied nationalistic sentiment in Europe were largely absent from the governments formed by these men. But nationalism played a pivotal role in mobilizing popular support for forming nation-states in Italy and Germany.

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